“The problem with winning the rat race is… you’re still a rat” –Lily Tomlin
When we think about career paths, we often think about climbing the ladder- stepping up our career one rung at a time to positions of greater status, demands, responsibilities and financial rewards. Career advancement is great, but it often comes at a cost- to mental and physical health and especially to time spent with family.
Perhaps there’s another way. A way that opens up time for a more well-rounded life.
Several writers and researchers have identified “downshifting” as an increasingly common choice of people in high-powered careers who changed gears to better accommodate family needs or pursue other life goals. here are four types of downshifters (these categories were identified by Amy Salzman in her fantastic book):
… actively choose self-demotion or self-firing in order to pursue other goals or open more time for family. For example, one of my best friends left a highly successful 18 year corporate career and became a stay-at-home dad when their first child arrived (see here for his guest post about it). My mother stepped down from a long career as an elementary school teacher and became the most overqualified teacher’s aide in the Albany school district. She told me the main reasons for her choice were to reduce her outside-the-classroom time demands and to avoid the stress associated with the responsibilities of running the classroom/dealing with parents.
… don’t self-demote, but rather choose to stay in place by turning down promotions and opportunities for advancement.
In some ways, I’d be considered a plateauer. I was department chair several years ago and filled in as temporary chair last semester- and both times was happy to leave this position of more responsibility, prestige and money to return to faculty status. I did this despite the fact that many, including my bosses and those in upper leadership, encouraged me to stay on and even consider higher positions in the future.
I love teaching and writing, but never liked administrative work. If I were a full-time academic administrator, I’d be a constant ball of stress. Being a faculty member gives me the time and place flexibility (plus summers off) to spend more time with my family, work my schedule around Amy’s, and pursue other professional goals on my own terms (e.g., this blog, my book proposal*). I heart my plateau.
… make a seemingly small change to their career trajectory or employer that often makes a huge difference in lifestyle- as opposed to moving to an entirely different career (so lawyer-turned-novelist John Grisham doesn’t count, but a lawyer-turned-mediator would).
Shifting careers is more common than you’d think. Many accountants at Big 4 firms escape their intense work pressures and time demands by taking internal accounting positions at client companies. These positions are still financially rewarding and prestigious, but tend to have more regular hours. This guest post described how, for family reasons, a lawyer left a prestigious clerkship to become in-house counsel for a NY State agency- again, still a good gig, but with more reasonable hours and work stress. Neither of these situations would be described as demotions or new careers, rather shifts that opened up more time for family and life.
Many folks choose to get off a corporate track and go into business for themselves. This process isn’t easy, and involves a lot of financial risk. But if you become your own boss without letting your business take over your life, self-employment can give you the autonomy to lead a better work-life balance (see this guest post by an old high-school buddy about how he successfully navigated this route to work-family balance)
The cost of living in the orbit of large affluent coastal US cities pretty much precludes downshifting. $900k can get you a one-bedroom apartment in NYC, but $200k can buy you a beautiful house in many other parts of the country. Lots of people who can work remotely, or have shifted their careers to be more flexible, have chosen to move out of the city to where the lifestyle is slower and more affordable. Moving out of the city and then taking a similar but less stressful/lower paying job in a more affordable area can also be a financial net positive. As Billy Joel once sang, “Good luck moving up, cuz’ I’m moving out”.
Saying “No” To More
Of course, there are financial consequences to downshifting. You’ll earn less and you have to be sure your family will still be ok. In the case of my plateauing, my plateau still pays pretty well, Amy and I have been very conservative with our finances, and I am blessed to have a wife who shares my priorities and life goals. Not everyone is so lucky. Financial prioritization and simplification are key.
The greatest barrier to downshifting, however, is often that of our own making. According to Salzman:
“Getting over the idea that they will be cast as failures is the greatest challenge facing backtrackers… stepping back is often the culmination of a painful battle between personal needs and professional expectations“
Society sends many repeated signals, especially to men, that MORE success, MORE money and MORE power are the keys to being seen as a success. A man in full. Most of us have been receiving this signal for virtually our whole lives. It takes a strong sense of self to turn away from more. Swimming against the tide isn’t easy.
… But it might just be worth it.
What do you think about career success and downshifting? Any examples to share? Let’s discuss in the comments section.
* yes, I am working on a book proposal on the general topic of Work & Family for Fathers. If anyone out there has any advice or connections for me, I’d greatly appreciate it!
- Amy Salzman’s fantastic book: Downshifting: Reinventing Success on a Slower Track
- Brad Harrington and Douglas T. Hall’s excellent and innovative textbook: Career Management and Work-Life Integration